Problematizing ‘Social Design’
10 noviembre 2014 - Impact Hub


Call me asocial, but I have had some problems with the word ‘social’ for already quite some time. But it is not a problem with the word itself, but on how it is coupled (or grouped) with other words as a ‘token’ that is supposed to legitimize a concept or practice, specially within art and design. I was critical to it when I started to work on (so-called) ‘social innovation’ projects in Colombia six years ago (2008); I was also critical to it when I decided to start a master in Social Designfour years ago (2010) –and specially when I was studying the course (2011-13); and I am specially critical today, when I graduated from a Social Design master program and develop my own work and practice avoiding these easy definitions. I would never call myself a ‘social designer’.

Back in 2011 in Bogotá (Col), just before coming to Europe to start my master studies, I had a conversation with a friend, colleague and brilliant designerCristiam Sabogal in a coffee-house in my neighborhood. We were speaking about my (by then) upcoming experience studying a program called social design and he made a comment that has kept resonating until now: “how ridiculous can our discipline (design) be, that we need to have a specific practice called social design”. And yes, this is a very blunt and raw statement, but it raises many questions; for instance, it forces you to ask yourself: “but wait, isn’t all design, ‘social’?” Think of the ‘Liberator Pistol’, an open-source, 3d Printed gun; we (some of us, at least) would agree that firearms are not the best for society, yet we know there is a lot of people in the world busy designing them, and now plans made available for (almost) anybody to make them. Isn’t this, as well, social design? I will clear out that with this post I do not pretend to present a ‘better definition’ of what social design is but, on the contrary, problematize the existing ones. Be it designing ‘the social’ (social innovation / social engineering), design ‘for the social’ (humanitarian design / design for the other 90%) or designing ‘socially’ (participatory design / co-design), I think we should be constantly challenging this attempts of fixed definitions.

Fast-forward, two years after, I had just graduated from the master and was living in Rotterdam. I applied to a public call of The New Institute called Social Design for Wicked Problems, which coupled designers and/or collectives with organizations or contexts that had (what they considered) a ‘wicked problem’. In the publication of the pre-selected designers and collectives, there was already an insight into some of the ‘problems’ and organizations: one of them, ING; their problem: loss of financial trust from customers. I was pre-selected for an interview and, when attending, I gave my opinion: “I do not think you can call ‘social design’ working for an institution that is partly responsible for our current crisis, and trying to fix one of the aspects that originally caused it”. We had an interesting discussion (one of the interviewers was a self-proclaimed ‘social designer’), but I might say I was happy not to be chosen to participate in a project that had such an affirmative and un-critical vision of the practice.

But even though I have been weary of the application of this word in design practices, I never thought it was so urgent of an issue to start a wider debate about what this meant; until now. Las week, during the Dutch Design Week 2014, there was a new book launch. It was not a new random book about star designers, or a new book on design research; it is a book that attempts to frame a series of practices of what could be called today ‘social design’ under a ‘world-changing-rhetoric’. The title of the book? “Looks good, feels good, is good. How social design changes our world”. Now, I have many problems with the title of the book, the tone of its writing and the approach, but I will try not to focus on the particularity of this case, but on what it represents in a wider context.

9789462260696_VRK      Book

I received a ‘flyer’ announcing the upcoming launching of the book a couple of months before. I was terrified by its title and what I understood as a pretentious discourse.  I did not want to have anything to do with a practice associated with it. But it also led me to start formulating a position towards it. I was invited to share some of my experiences of my first year after graduation to the master students at the Design Academy Eindhoven, as part of the Source program. Having received the flyer of the book a couple of weeks before, I decided to start problematizing the practice. The title of my talk was called “Social design before SOCIAL DESIGN. Some experiences on socially engaged practices from across the atlantic”. My arguments where basically two: (1)social design is the new buzzword to frame practices that have already existed for quite some time and (2) most of the times these have been developed by non-designers. These were the slides for that talk: social design before Social Design from Pablo Salazar

There is two issues at stake here: the importance (danger) of discourse and rhetoric in framing a practice, and the agency of designers / practitioners in working within it. But it is not the first time that this is happening; a couple of years ago, also during the DDW, took place the launch of a book called “Sustainism is the new modernism”, proposing this new word as an ‘umbrella’ that would unify alternative practices within design, but would also inject with ‘ideology’ (thus the -ism) this ‘movement’. I wonder how much good is this bringing to the practice and, specially, to the people and communities its supposed to work with (you wonder if it is not just another legitimation strategy to make ourselves feel relevant). And there is the second issue, of the agency of the designer. In the book LGFGIG, each reference to a project is accompanied by a statement starting with the article “We” and followed with an action that is supposed to bring some benefit to society, like ‘“…save water”. This shows how the intention is to centre the attention in the people initiating the projects and how their intervention was crucial —if not necessary, to bring the change along. Now, by saying this I do not want to criticize nor limit the agency of designers, but I want to make the reflection that the effect of what is produced during our projects is consequence of a high number of aspects, actors and conditions, of which design is just a tiny part of. Echoing Alastair Fuad-Luke on a recent DESIS Philosophy talk, designers should go back to think and act as citizens instead of as designers. I share his position, in the extent that I think design practice is too contaminated by too many assumptions, and only by humbling-down to our position as citizens we will be able to play an important role.

Today I think we need to problematize social design, to avoid it being instrumentalised. Without looking critically at it, social design can be almost anything and nothing at the same time. Perhaps we have to start creating an agonistic (anti)manifesto for a social design practice, that sets some conditions for working with it. Here is a first idea: you should only work with/in/through/for social design if you are able to have a (self)critical view of your practice and constantly re-evaluate your position.